Herpetophobia: What to do when reptiles trigger terror!

By Reptile Encounters/29 August 2014

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We’re encouraged to be fearless, however a life without any fear would be terribly short-lived. Fear protects us from danger and alerts us to threat, but while many of us are afraid of creepy crawlies and bumps in the night, when normal fears are taken to extremes they become phobias.

Unlucky sufferers have a lasting, intense and irrational fear, causing distress or impairment to their work and social lives. And it’s more rampant than you’d think – phobias affect a whopping 10% of us at some point in our lives, with women affected twice as much as men.

Herpetophobia, a fear of reptiles, is a common one, which comes in many forms. Some herpetophobes are only afraid when actually touching a snake, while others can’t even bare a photo of the tiniest, most innocent gecko. An unexpected reptile encounter can trigger everything from screams, shakes and tears to full-blown hyperventilation.

It’s suspected to be an evolutionary phobia. Our ancestors feared animals that could cause harm, and the considerable number of venomous reptiles out there could well be to blame. Yes, the threat of a dangerous reptile is all but extinct in our modern-day lives (with only one or two snakebite and croc induced deaths in Australia each year), but ancestral fears are acquired with uncanny ease. And perhaps herpetophobes should consider themselves lucky. While many phobias are of this ancient variety, others see people living in fear of seemingly obscure things – rubber bands, eggbeaters, even chocolate!

So how do you develop a phobia? It’s likely to be one of three ways: a terrifying personal encounter, witnessing another person’s fright or receiving threatening information. You might acquire a snake phobia from a close encounter in the backyard, seeing a schoolmate run shrieking from a slither in the bush, or being told that snakebites spell imminent, painful death. Many people will brush off these experiences, but some are permanently affected.

Treatment for herpetophobia, thankfully, is quite straightforward. Cognitive-behavioural therapies may be used such as immersion or exposure therapy – where the sufferer learns to tolerate the feared object or situation through exposure to a high level of that stimulus – or progressive exposure, where the sufferer is taught relaxation skills and given the opportunity to practice them through gradual introduction to the stimulus.

If you have symptoms of herpetophobia, get along to see your doctor or therapist. Free yourself by facing what you fear.

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